Beginning today, Myanmar’s Union Peace Conference holds out the prospect of a peace that has eluded the country since its 1948 birth. Most of Myanmar’s conflicts, including the communist insurgency backed for decades by China, are now either terminated completely or abating and a new democratically elected government holds the reins of power in Naypyidaw. This week’s event—also known as the 21st Century Panglong Conference, to echo a landmark 1947 event—thus marks an important milestone and opportunity for Myanmar and its people.
It is important, though, not to expect too much. The Panglong Conference is the start of a process, not its conclusion. After decades of civil war, displacement, land seizures, discrimination, and poverty, the challenges facing Myanmar are both large-scale and complex. They are also interconnected and will require comprehensive peacebuilding solutions backed by the international community.
The original Panglong Conference now enjoys something of a mythical status. It was an attempt by nationalist leader Aung San to win the loyalty of Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups in return for autonomy and self-rule. But it is worth remembering that the event actually failed to deliver an agreement. Only at a second conference, held 12 months later, was this achieved.
The parties to these events later differed in their interpretation of what had been agreed, and the terms were fairly ambiguous. For example, it was agreed that a Kachin state would be desirable but no specific provisions were made to achieve it; “full autonomy” was agreed “in principle” but there was little clarity on what that meant. Nonetheless, the Panglong Agreement provided the Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic communities autonomy in return for their loyalty to the new state.
In addition to its ambiguity, the Panglong deal also lacked inclusiveness. The Karen ethnic group, for example, was not formally included in the arrangements and attended the talks only as observers. Some Karen later claimed that the departing British colonial powers had promised them a separate state. Whether or not the Panglong could have established a framework for the peaceful unification of Myanmar will never be known. On July 19, 1947, Aung San and six cabinet ministers were assassinated by gunmen paid by U Saw, a rival for the country’s leadership. Panglong was sidelined and the new state was born at war with itself.
What we do know, is that on independence the new government was immediately attacked by the Karen National Union—whose forces got within 30 miles of Yangon—as well as Chinese-backed communists, ethnic nationalists from the Kachin, Shan, Mon, Chin, Wa, Kokang, and by other armed assemblages. Even the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang set up home inside Myanmar after its defeat by the communists in 1949. Supplied by the CIA, they held on inside Myanmar until 1960, provoking conflict between Yangon and the Shan.
Civilian government lumbered on until 1958, when authority was transferred to the military—the Tatmadaw—which then seized absolute power in 1962. With the conflicts ongoing, the Tatmadaw faced many challenges to its rule, including student-led protests in 1962 and 1988 and the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007. It responded to each with brutality and violence, killing as many as 6,500 protesters in 1988. From 2010, however, reforms led by Thein Sein paved the way for the opening of the economy and the transition of power to a new, elected, government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016.
Military rule in Myanmar emerged as a response to the multiple armed conflicts that confronted the country from its birth. Today, the sustenance of democratic rule requires the sustainable resolution of these conflicts. Aung San Suu Kyi has always recognized this point and by invoking the spirit of Panglong, and of her father’s vision of a unified country with autonomous provinces, has committed her government to prioritizing peace.
The challenges, though, are immense and a comprehensive deal this time is unlikely. First, not all of the armed groups present in Panglong have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord. Eight of the participating armed groups have, but 10 others remain non-signatories and three further non-signatories are still negotiating their participation at the conference. One of the most critical among the non-signatories attending is the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), which is locked in sporadic battles with government forces trying to close down the KIO’s illicit smuggling business and block its control of hydroelectric plants. To complicate things, the three groups holding out on participating in the Panglong Conference are fighting alongside the KIO. The problem here is not just the evidence of patchy consensus on the ceasefire, but that the different groups prefer different overall approaches to the peace process.
Second, Myanmar’s different ethnic groups are not united. This will make negotiating with them very difficult. They are much more fractured and fragmented than in 1947. Relations between the groups are rife with difficulties and sometimes bloody conflict. Notably, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Shan State Army-South have, since early 2015, engaged in deadly conflict with each other for control of territory in northern Shan state. Politically, too, there are problems. The relatively small Wa, an ethnically Chinese group of a little more than half a million people, which nevertheless commands a powerful army and controls the local narcotics trade, demands its own state with powers equivalent to that sought by the Karen, who number some 7 million. Then there are divisions within the ethnic groups themselves. Different Karen groups have different positions on both what they should be demanding and how they should be negotiating. Thus, even if negotiators find an agreement, it is not a foregone conclusion that they will be able to persuade their peoples to implement it.
Third, the sheer complexity of the issues at hand is daunting. The parties disagree on the process, i.e., should it precede or proceed a ceasefire? They have little clear idea about what level of autonomy and national representation they want, or about how autonomy within autonomous regions will work; the potential Wa states are currently encompassed by Shan State, for example. And they have yet to address thorny issues such as the return of refugees and displaced persons, the end of illicit trade, human rights, and land ownership. To find common ground among the ethnic groups that can then be supported by both the Burmese majority and the Tatmadaw will be a difficult task indeed. To then implement a comprehensive peace plan will require significant peacebuilding efforts, supported by the United Nations and others. With that in mind, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s participation in the Panglong talks is both welcome and important. The UN’s peacebuilding architecture will be needed in the future.
Fourth, the conference faces difficult questions about inclusiveness. Already much more inclusive than the first Panglong, a decision that individual civil society groups and ethnic political parties will not be granted the same status as the formal negotiators has drawn criticism. While certainly understandable, in terms of the pragmatic need to drive dialogue forward towards consensus, the question of inclusivity will need to be kept in mind.
Finally, there remains the question that is not up for negotiation at Panglong: the Rohingya situation. Here again, though, Aung San Suu Kyi has demonstrated a deft political touch. The government has stated that it will act to protect all the country’s people, including the Rohingya, and has moved to curb hate speech. At the same time, recognizing the political sensitivities around the longstanding dispute between the Rohingya and the Arakanese people—a conflict in which neither side has clean hands—the government has constituted a high-level panel led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to advise on how to move forward. Of course, Annan’s panel is no substitute for government action or local conflict resolution, but it will be seen as impartial and legitimate and its advice should lay the groundwork for a consensus on how to move forward. It is a thoughtful and promising way of navigating through this difficult problem.
But it is not all negative. There are indeed many grounds for hope. The government enjoys both domestic and international legitimacy, and the negotiators at Panglong know that any agreement they reach will be supported by the international community; a message that Ban Ki-moon will no doubt convey. What is more, the Tatmadaw has agreed to the conference and committed to implement any agreement reached between the government, army, and ethnic groups.
The 21st Century Panglong therefore marks a historic step on the path to peace in Myanmar. But it is just a step; the beginning of a long and difficult peace process in which hard compromises will have to be made, and not just by the government. To succeed, all the parties will have to compromise in order to find common ground. The international community, meanwhile, would do well to furnish the government with every support and to significantly ramp up its commitment to peacebuilding. The challenges are immense, but the fact that so much has already been achieved in the past five years gives hope that Myanmar’s great potential for peace and prosperity might at last be within the grasp of its people.